Bulworth is the most politically radical film from Hollywood since, well, Warren Beatty’s Reds. It slashes at the two-party system in America, corporate domination of economic life, corrupted mass media, and racial injustice. Unlike Reds, which employed realistic techniques to evoke the revolutionary fervor surrounding the Bolshevik Revolution, Bulworth is a tragicomedy. Its humor often becomes farce, a kind of cinema of the absurd. The language and images are particularly sensationalistic. Sometimes rather than mocking society as spectacle, Bulworth becomes that spectacle. In so doing, thoughtful observations about America at the end of the century lose some of their sting.
The film opens with a left-liberal senator from California, Jay Billington Bulworth, watching his reelection campaign tapes with growing despair. On the walls of his office are photographs from the 1960s, when Bulworth was part of the civil-rights and antiwar movements. To survive politically, he has become a Clinton New Democrat, but the psychological cost has been mortal. Bulworth concludes that he has nothing to live for and puts out a contract on his life. Before doing so, however, he forces the point man of the insurance lobby to write him a $10-million life insurance policy. In exchange, Bulworth agrees to kill in committee legislation that would provide universal access to low-cost insurance for all Americans.
The first stop in his reelection campaign after striking this deal is a black church in Los Angeles. Bulworth begins with the usual pap, but suddenly interrupts himself and begins to speak candidly. He tells the parishioners that his speech is the same as last time and the problems are the same as last time, and, just like last time, even the promise of change will cease once the election campaign is over. While the immediate target of this moment of truth is Bulworth himself and politicians like him, the speech is also a criticism of politically ambitious black ministers and churchgoers who ought to know better. The acknowledging laughter and applause that greet his outburst indicates that they do know better.
Not knowing when or how the assassin he has hired will strike, Bulworth proceeds to an after-hours dub in a black neighborhood. The images are spectacle writ large. Every character and situation is an outsized caricature that some viewers will find humorous and others offensive. Bulworth begins to speak in rap. His sense of rhyme and rhythm is far from perfect, but he is having fun. As the film progresses, spontaneous rap messages and hip-hop music signal Bulworth’s growing estrangement from mainstream culture. Unlike the white Negro of the 1950s who coveted black culture, was ultracool, and highly protective of his image, Bulworth is very aware that he is a kind of buffoon on his last hurrah. He is letting go as one might at Madri Gras or Carnival.
What keeps Bulworth from simply being a white frat boy on a rampage in darkie town is that he really does care about society in general and African Americans in particular. His new entourage includes three black women. Two of them are the kind of groupie that political campaigns always attract, but rather than well-dressed grads from good colleges, they are flygirls from the college of hip-hop, full of irreverent energy and experiences of the kind that political handlers abhor. The third, Nina (played by the lovely Halle Berry) has signed on to be one of Bulworth’s potential assassins in order to settle a debt her brother owes to a drug dealer. At first she is not particularly attracted to Bulworth, distrusting his politics and wary of being too close to a man she must kill. Bulworth, on the other hand, is immediately beguiled by her beauty. Sensing her ambiguous response to his attentions, he wonders if it is a matter of his age or his race. Perhaps in an effort to impress her with his activities during the 1960s, he asks her what she knows about that time.
Nina responds that her parents were involved with the Black Panther movement and as a child she was fed by the Panther breakfast programs. Of far greater importance is her political analysis of black poverty. Rather than a diatribe against a vaguely defined white-power structure delivered in the language of the ghetto poor, Nina offers a Marxist interpretation of black oppression that highlights capital flight (rather than white flight), malign neglect (not benign neglect), assassinations, and manipulation by the media. All these are seen as conscious ploys by the power elite and not irrational racism. Her speech is delivered calmly in complex and well-crafted sentences.
Later in the film, when asked by news media to explain the problems of blacks, Bulworth will begin to respond with the old cliches, then stop himself, and deliver her analysis verbatim. One interpretation of this action is that Bulworth has appropriated the ideas of others and palmed them off as his own invention. But that creates an impossible situation for black-white communications. Whites cannot simultaneously be damned for not listening and then damned anew for listening and accepting what they hear. Bulworth has become involved with an intellectual woman, has listened to her, and has now shared her insights with a larger audience. This is not be confused with radical chic in which anything said by any black person about race is automatically considered insightful or the view of the community.
The sequence in which Bulworth delivers this analysis is one of the most successful in the film. When a television reporter poses a question, Bulworth reminds the audience watching their television (and the audience watching this movie) that the reporters are as highly paid as he and his opponent. Moreover, they are being paid by the same people, so the reporters could easily answer their own questions. This is Noam Chomsky-for-the-masses, and it works. Bulworth makes a pitch for socialized medicine and leaves the stage with one of his better rap sequences.
Bulworth has regained the will to live and tries to call off the contract on his life. Finding that calling off the hit requires some time, he goes into hiding. Nina, who has only slowly come to realize she is not going to kill him, offers him refuge at her home. Her family, however, is not entirely happy with having him as a guest, a few going beyond indifference to hostility to whites. Bulworth relocates to a shed in the backyard. Later, he puts on a disguise so that he can go into the streets for air. The outsized clothing, stocking cap, and other paraphernalia are part of the farcical aspect of the film. Rather than mocking ghetto clothing, they seem to be making fun of whites who adapt them for wear without much thought about their social meaning or origins.
An incident that occurs while Bulworth is in his “old white man” drag is indicative of the thin ice on which the film often skates. The disguised Bulworth encounters a gang of black kids who are a fully armed juvenile unit of the local drug dealer. Almost as a joke, the terrified Bulworth offers to buy them ice cream! A jump cut then shows the kids walking out of an ice-cream parlor licking cones. Beatty is trying desperately to remind us that, in fact, these are children. Behind their hostile leers are human beings as vulnerable as his Bulworth. The quasi-surreal scene loses its slim chance of going anywhere credible when the gang is confronted by two white cops, who are as crudely drawn racist cartoons as the juveniles. The cops pull out their guns and spark a confrontation that Bulworth barely manages to keep from becoming a bloodbath.
These events eventually bring Bulworth into contact with L.D., the dealer for whom the kids work. Rather than being an unfeeling exploiter of children and merchant of death in his community, L.D. thinks of himself as simply doing what is necessary to survive. He even fancies himself a protector of the neighborhood, an echo of the claim of some black street gangs. He gives Bulworth an analysis of racial dynamics that is more populist than Nina’s, but of the same character. As he had with Nina’s analysis, Bulworth will also use L.D.’s at a public event later in the film. From a dramatic aspect, L.D. is far less credible as a character than Nina, as his social analysis appears to rationalize not only L.D.’s personal behavior but also his criminalizing of children.
As Bulworth frolics through various political landscapes, his rapping improves and his targets multiply. At a Hollywood fund-raiser, Bulworth challenges Jews in the film industry regarding their self-congratulatory support of the civil-rights movement, while doing little in the media they dominate to address race issues. He blasts away at Israeli hard-liners in the Middle East. On other occasions, he redefines obscenity as social injustices rather than word choice. Through camera shots that punctuate his verbal thrusts and by the actual naming of names, Bulworth goes against the entire political establishment – Clinton, Gore, Gingrich, Forbes, Buchanan, et al. The word socialism slips out positively twice in what may be a record for a Hollywood production.
Exhausted by his weekend of truth and use of stimulants, Bulworth eventually falls into a deep sleep. His campaign managers inform us that the new rapping senator is far more popular than he ever was as a New Democrat. When Bulworth awakes, he begins to behave like a normal person for the first time in the film. A mob of photographers awaits as he puts on the familiar political jacket, white shirt, and tie. Is it all over? Was rapping some truth just a momentary fling? Nina watches him warily, the campaign managers watch, the audience watches.
Bulworth refuses to go outdoors to remeet his public until he learns what Nina really thinks of him. In the course of their interaction, Beatty throws the audience two of the film’s biggest zingers. On the question of how racial problems will be solved in this nation, Bulworth proclaims that there ought to be so much mating between the so-called races that the only category left will be mixed. Only he doesn’t say it that way. He uses the impolite four-letter words and suggests his solution will be a lot of fun as well as just. Anyone knowing Beatty’s sexual reputation may want to just write this idea off as an aging star’s fantasy. But this happens to be the answer which is slowly taking form in the United States, an answer that would have been a crime in numerous states not so many years ago. Beatty has the courage to say that, rather than fearing the darkening of America, he welcomes it.
The second zinger is the exchange in which Nina says to Bulworth, “You my nigger.” This is an unprecedented use of the n-word in film. Just what it means is open to all manner of interpretation. What is clear is that Nina uses the word affectionately and approvingly. One thinks of how members of ethnic groups, who bridle when certain epithets are used against them by outsiders, reverse the meaning of the word and make it an endearment when used amongst insiders. Rather than bestowing some form of symbolic blackness upon Bulworth, Nina appears to be saying he is now to be included among the dangerous ones who will do whatever is necessary for their survival. But the sentence comes out of nowhere and is left undeveloped. Such ambiguous sensationalism runs the risk of simply being sensationalist.
Bulworth needs to know if Nina will be at his side in the dangerous world beyond the door. Does this mean he is once more the white leader asking a black companion to take a secondary role? Is it the male once more asserting patriarchal order? Or does he really need her intelligence and her love to meet the challenges ahead? Even if it wasn’t a Hollywood film, Nina would be compelled to join him. Separately they were both sinking. Together they have the potential for success. As they go outside and become enmeshed in a crowd of photographers and thrill-seekers, a lone rifleman hiding on the roof shoots the senator. The shooting is not the macabre result of his own contract inappropriately being carried out. The shooting has been ordered by the betrayed insurance-company lobbyist with whom Bulworth had negotiated the $10-million payoff. The fallen Bulworth is whisked off to a hospital, his ultimate fate uncertain, the symbolic best in white America once more wounded, perhaps fatally.
The coda for the film falls to an aging black man. He has appeared in several earlier scenes, speaking directly to the camera. His role is much like that of the unnamed revolutionaries whose observations were inserted between various scenes in Reds. Similarly, the interlocutor of Bulworth is not identified as Amiri Baraka. If you know he is a poet/playwright who has vigorously proclaimed his Marxist ideology for decades and whose first work goes back to the era of the Beat generation, well and good. If not, it doesn’t matter. What does matter is what he says each time he appears, and what he says is: “You got to be a spirit. You can’t be no ghost.”
The spirit the griot is evoking has been clearly established in the opening scenes and reinforced throughout the film. It is the spirit of what is called the Sixties, but is actually an era beginning in the mid-1950s and extending to the mid-1970s. Everyone has their own vision of that time, but whatever one’s vision, it was an era of change and, despite the carnage in Vietnam and the urban insurrections, a time of hope. Baraka and Beatty are stating in no uncertain terms that nostalgia for this era, the scrapbooking of its heroes, and the endless retelling of moments of the glory days, is not good enough. What the nation needs is a return to the spirit of those times. That spirit was multifaceted. It infused those incredibly brave individuals who risked their lives (and sometimes lost) in a thousand marches against institutionalized racism. It moved Abbie Hoffman to shock Wall Street by contemptuously showering the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange with dollar bills. It manifested itself in movements for sexual liberation, concerns for the survival of spaceship earth, and some awfully good music. So what they are saying is, “You got to be a spirit. You can’t be no ghost.”
The sensational aspects of Bulworth are often counterproductive to its political messages. A good many viewers of the film are likely to respond to the spectacle rather than the politics. That’s a gamble that Beatty was willing to take and one for which he must be held accountable. What is not fair is to conflate Beatty-the-star with Bulworth-the-character. To be sure, Beatty has been a prominent Hollywood supporter of the liberal Democrats for a long time. He probably does think the Black Panthers and Bobby Kennedy exemplify the 1960s. He most likely is thoroughly disgusted with President Clinton’s wretched political compromises. As coscriptwriter on the film, such feeling influenced his shaping of Bulworth’s persona, but Bulworth is not Beatty any more than Beatty was John Reed, Bugsy Siegel, or Dick Tracy, characters he portrayed in other films.
Although Beatty has never had great range as an actor, his early success and good looks make it easy to forget just how effective he can be in quite different roles. In Splendor in the Grass, The Parallax View, and Bonnie and Clyde, to name just three films, he’s given portraits of diverse American types that have staying power. To that list can be added the energetic, flappable, vulnerable, but utterly sincere title character of Bulworth.
Bulworth is not a film that is likely to take a place in the pantheon of cinematic masterworks. Many of the chances it takes do not pay off. Humor always pushes unexpected emotional buttons, especially when it is as wacky as in Bulworth. One can imagine all manner of credible subtexts. But sometimes an exploding cigar is just an exploding cigar. Sometimes it’s just a simple story about learning to listen to what others have to say about their pain, about falling in love when you least expect to, and about responding to the bravest part of your personality. At a time when Hollywood films are largely devoid of any ideas, Bulworth is filled with ideas. Bulworth takes on the big issues and, like it or not, posits radical solutions. And in case you didn’t get the subtext, the supertext, and the text: “You can’t be no ghost. You got to be a spirit.”
Of the various French directors that one can place within that loosely defined group known as The New Wave, Jacques Rivette is certainly one of the least well-known in the U.S., although his recent La Belle noiseuse (1991) has changed that slightly. While directors such as Godard, Truffaut, and Chabrol were managing, in spite of challenges they represented to the Establishment, to find pockets of acceptance – and commercial distributors – for their work, Rivette remained the true independent, if not totally underground, filmmaker. When Paris nous appartient (Paris Belongs to Us) finally appeared in 1961 after four years of desperate attempts to find money to keep the project afloat, its vague story of a political conspiracy to enslave the world – a fiction, as it turns out – appealed to very few. The French censors, headed by former leftist Andre Malraux, kept Rivette’s adaptation of Diderot’s eighteenth-century novel La Religieuse, in which a young nun (Anna Karina) revolts against her enslavement to the convent and the Church, out of circulation for over a year between 1966 and 1967.
Following a documentary in 1967 on his mentor Jean Renoir, the director’s next film, L’Amour fou, released in 1969, intriguingly alternates rehearsals for a staging of Racine’s Andromaque, which are filmed, and sometimes shown, in 16mm footage taken by a documentary crew, with scenes in an apartment where the principal actress from Andromaque (Bulle Ogier) and her husband (Jean-Pierre Kalfon) tear each other apart. Although the film strongly enhanced Rivette’s reputation in certain areas, its 252-minute running time has definitely worked against wider acceptance. Indeed, long running times have become one of the trademarks of Rivette’s style. His next film, Out 1: noli me tangere (1971), runs close to thirteen hours and has been seen in its original version by only a handful of people (a shortened version entitled Out 1/Spectre, released in 1974 and shown, among other places, at the New York Film Festival, still runs well over four hours).
1974 also saw the release of what I consider to be Rivette’s masterpiece – and, indeed, one of the major masterpieces of the cinema – Celine et Julie vont en bateau (Celine and Julie Go Boating), whose running time weighs in at a mere 193 minutes. Like almost all of Rivette’s films, Celine and Julie slowly and dreamily sets up the existence of two opposing worlds, with the principal characters – in this case Celine (Juliet Berto) and Julie (Dominique Labourier) – moving back and forth between the two. The one world is often dominated by artistic creation, although in Celine and Julie this frequently boils down to just pure game playing. The other is a darker, more impenetrable world that seems to hide sinister secrets.
But Rivette also solidifies a position that had been taking shape in his earlier work but that manifests itself in a startling, refreshing, and often extremely funny way in Celine and Julie: the nonsinister world – the world of childhood, games, innocence, witchcraft, Tarot cards, dolls, outlandish puns, even mind-altering drugs – is a universe inhabited by women, whence the film’s English-language subtitle, Phantom Ladies Over Paris, which alludes not only to the old Feuillade serials (and to a sequence in which the two heroines, dressed in black body suits and hoods, roller-skate through nighttime Paris) but also to Rivette’s vision of women as extraterrestrials. The director has been quoted as saying that, “Only women can be extraterrestrials. Men have no sense of the cosmic forces, which lie beyond their grasp.” Interestingly, screenplay credit is given to the four principal actresses (Berto, Labourier, Bulle Ogler, and Marie-France Pisier) and Rivette, “in dialogue with Edouardo de Gregorio.”
And so, to open and close the film, we see what appears to be the beginning of a game (the intertitle reads “More often than not, it began like this…”). In the first sequence, Julie, playing Alice to Celine’s white rabbit, follows this person, who may or may not be her friend and/or roommate, throughout Paris, which includes a run up the million or so steps alongside the funicular railway of Paris’s steep Butte Montmartre, all of it transformed by Jacques Renard’s cinematography and Nicole Lubtchansky’s montage into something close to a fantasy world, as is often the case in Rivette’s films. The film’s final sequence reverses the roles, with Celine running off in pursuit of Julie. Thus does Celine and Julie’s broadest structure throw the viewer outside of the comfortable, causal connections of chronological time into a universe of game playing dominated by cyclism and circularity. This is reinforced throughout the film by certain anticontinuity devices, such as jump cuts and unmotivated blackouts, that are introduced not as a kind of quasi-Godard provocateurism but rather as part of the natural rhythm of things.
We also have a sense of a deep communication between the two women that often takes place on a nonverbal level. And when the time comes, each one, playing the role of the other, is able to oust oppressive males from their world. Celine, dressed as Julie, meets her friend’s choirboy fiance (Philippe Clevenot) in a park, does a pathetically erotic waltz with him as he mutters the words “dormir, baiser” (sleeping, fucking), drops his pants, and then offends his sense of Catholic purity by telling him to go jerk off in the daisies. Julie, taking over Celine’s mildly erotic magic act in a routine of songs that cover the gamut from little girl to Marlene Dietrich, outrages the cigar-smoking, Lebanese businessmen who are thinking about hiring Celine, calling them a “bunch of cosmic pimps.”
Set against this world of little-girl innocence, within the foreboding confines of a large, shuttered, brick mansion set beneath the level of a street improbably named the Rue du Nadir des Pommes (Apples’ Nadir Street), is a musty, hothouse, closed-off world inhabited by three ghoulish characters (Pisier, Ogler, and Barbet Schroeder, the latter somewhat evoking the gaunt character played by Sacha Pitoeff in Last Year at Marienbad), along with a little girl named Madelyn (Nathalie Asnar). Like refugees from a Pirandello play, they find themselves trapped in a double narrative taken from two different works by Henry James, a story entitled “The Romance of Certain Old Clothes” and a novel, later made into a play, entitled The Other House, the only James work, according to Leon Edel, to contain “a brutal murder.” Somehow, Celine has been hired into the journee perpetuelle of this narrative action as a nurse for Madelyn, and as the action progresses, Celine and Julie take turns playing the role of the nurse. Initially, however, their only way of accessing what has gone on in the house is via memories induced by what looks suspiciously like LSD-laced candles.
As the two women repeatedly witness the same fragments of action from the frozen but fractionalized Jamesian narrative, they become aware, across the long blocks of time that are essential to Rivette’s cinema, that one of the two women in the house, both of whom are in love with Madelyn’s father, will murder the little girl in order to undercut a vow made by the father to his dying wife that he would not remarry as long as Madelyn was alive. With the aid of witchcraft and talismans, Celine and Julie, on a dark, stormy evening, both manage to gain entrance to the house, enter the drama together for the first time, and then save Madelyn. As the next day begins, they find Madelyn in the bathtub of their apartment, asking what game they’re going to play next.
An obvious interpretation of Celine and Julie Go Boating would be that the two women, living in a kind of prepatriarchal state and defying the codes of patriarchal society, have ultimately rescued what amounts to their common inner child. In a sense, it might even be said that they have given birth to her (needless to say without the benefit of a male). But what is ingenious about Rivette’s vision is that he presents the women’s universe, with its games, repetitions, contradictions, and cyclisms, as the real world (to which impression Berto and Labourier’s extremely natural, sometimes improvised acting contributes mightily), while the stiff, patriarchal world of murderous, sexual rivalries is shown for what it is, namely a narrative construct taking place within a rigidly defined time and space. In Celine and Julie’s world, LSD is needed to enter into that linear time and place, not to escape from it.
Here, as in many other Rivette films, a self-reflective examination of narrative ultimately reveals the ugly ways in which the patriarchal world has been put together. Along the way, Rivette offers no pat explanation for just what is going on: it could all be a game; it could be LSD-induced hallucinations; it could even be stories imagined by Julie as a little girl. For, at one point, Celine and Julie reaches a kind of grand pause as Julie, looking behind the brick mansion, discovers a smaller house inhabited by an older woman who turns out to have been her nurse (Marie-Therese Saussure), who reminds Julie how afraid she was of the nurse who took care of the little girl in the other house across the way. And at the end, the director offers a spectacular, final image that brilliantly sums up the clash between the two worlds: as Celine, Julie, and Madelyn watch from their own rowboat, we see a sumptuous, highly saturated long shot of another boat floating on its own power down the fiver. In it, frozen in various postures, are the man and two women from what Jonathan Rosenbaum has called Rivette’s “house of fiction.” How’s that for a floating signifier?
New Yorker Video has performed an invaluable service by making Celine and Julie Go Boating, one of the most original visions in all of cinema, available on video. It would have been nice had they managed a sharper video transfer with truer colors (the whole thing has a bit of a greenish tint to it). Non-Francophones will also miss the subtitles from older New Yorker versions of the film, which translated such things as Rue du Nadir des Pommes (this version leaves it in French) and didn’t flinch at giving baiser as “fucking” (the translation of “kissing” is totally wrong). Still, this is an absolutely essential video.
Long before the critical and popular success of Secrets & Lies, Mike Leigh made many low-budget films for television. Most of these subtle and unique works – e.g., Grown Ups (1980) and Home Sweet Home (1982) – depicted the everyday domestic life and relationships of working-class people. These films never received the same critical consideration as Leigh’s theatrically released works, though they had a similar preternatural ability to capture the essence of individual behavior and social class patterns.
One of Leigh’s most powerful and melancholy portraits of working class life under Thatcherism was the 16mm Channel Four television production (unfortunately completed just before they decided to make 35mm films for theatrical release) of Meantime (1983) – a film that has rarely been shown in U.S. theatres, but has now been released by Fox Lorber Home Video.
Meantime centers around an unemployed family living on the dole in a desolate council estate. It’s Leigh’s version of a political film, which means that he offers no political answers to the plight of his characters nor does he try in any way to turn them into sympathetic social victims. In fact, the Pollocks, the caterwauling family at the film’s center, are a model of callousness and dysfunction, acrimoniously shouting “Shut up!” and deriding each other in almost every exchange over life’s minutia. It includes chain-smoking Mavis (Pam Ferris) and Frank (Jeff Robert), the abrasive, sour, uncaring parents, and their sons, the slow-witted, listless Colin who walks like a marionette (though there is no sign of Slingblade or Shine-style cuteness or audience manipulation in Tim Roth’s poignant, totally unsentimental performance). There is also his cynical, smart older brother, Mark (Phil Daniels), who impotently expresses nothing but sarcasm and contempt for everybody around him and spends solitary days drifting around the city.
The other characters who live in the council fiats seem either terminally inert and depressed, or hostile and aimless, like Gary Oldman’s Coxey, a beer-drinking, apelike-walking, wildly gesticulating, theatrically psychopathic skinhead (who is last seen banging around in a tin drum like a Beckett character). Coxey even indulges in some halfhearted racist threats, but his racism gives him no edge or sense of self-esteem. It’s just part of the absurd, pathetic persona he’s constructed.
The Pollocks’ cramped flat is part of a graffiti-ridden, forlorn, paper-strewn council estate (a concrete “anthill”) where even the pubs are lifeless. Describing the environment as ‘bleak’ is using too positive an adjective. In Meantime the characters lack both work and hope – there is only the interminable dole line, television, pool, bingo, the betting parlor, and a life of immobility. For them, one day is no different from the next, and all the days blur into the dreary grayness of the world that envelops them and which becomes an apt metaphor for their condition. Leigh depicts his characters in an utterly clear-eyed fashion. He refuses to make them either politically conscious (the only political expression being Mark’s working class resentment of his Aunt Barbara’s clean, suburban life style) or warm, sensitive, and communal. Mark clearly loves the quasicatatonic Colin, but constantly undercuts and patronizes him, even subverting his one faint attempt at autonomy.
As always, Leigh aroused the criticism of the extreme left by refusing to make a political film with heroes, villains, and ringing, facile solutions. Meantime never inveighs against capitalism or indulges in rhetoric about the horrors of Thatcherism. The film provides us only with a grimly authentic portrait of unemployed working-class people living beaten-down, miserable lives, without the consolation of even a chaotic, intense urbanscape and street life in which to lose themselves.
Nevertheless, though Leigh makes no overt political judgments, Meantime makes clear that the Thatcher-induced culture of unemployment helps create a society of depressed, futile people where the wit and insight of a man like Mark just turns rancid and goes to waste. Still, Leigh is too honest an observer to make us believe that the family’s whole story is explained by the oppressive nature of the English class system and the dead-end social and economic alternatives they face. The Pollocks, especially the parents, are the type of emotionally stunted, unpleasant people, who are incapable of ever breaking out of the set pattern of their lives. They are people who would probably function badly and be unhappy even if a socialist society built on full employment and humane housing was in the offing.
Leigh’s treatment of Barbara (Marion Bailey), Mavis’s younger sister, is equally complex. Barbara, married to a bank manager, has escaped the East End, and lives an upwardly mobile life in a large, unlived-in looking new house on a sterile suburban estate in Chigwell. Intelligent, childless, tense Barbara, however, drinks, feels isolated and profoundly depressed, and is burning with hostility towards her unseeing, conventional husband. There is a social context to Barbara’s behavior. She’s a working-class woman who has moved up in class (she has gone to business college and taken elocution lessons to refine her Cockney accent), but it has resulted only in estrangement and despair.
The film suggests that the unease and anxiety she lives with may partially be a result of her social mobility, but Leigh, without spelling it out, intimates that, like all personal narratives, there is more than one reason why Barbara behaves and feels as she does. Barbara may be more articulate, and have more life options than the Pollocks, but her voice conveys something painfully fragile and uncertain, though we can only speculate about its cause. She may be able, finally, to say “Fuck off!” to her husband, and Colin may, for the moment, break out of his stupor and bellow “Shut up!” at his stunned parents, but neither minor triumph prefigures any change in their cheerless, moribund lives. There are no political or personal revolutions in the offing in Meantime.
Meantime is a film with the barest of narratives, built around a string of episodes where nothing much happens except the illumination of a chill, agonizing world and a number of individuals who inhabit it. It’s filled with undramatic shots of characterless and claustrophobic rooms, silent, barren streets and shopping precincts, and long takes and close-ups observing lives of quiet desperation. In Leigh’s hands those long takes and close-ups do more than just illustrate hopelessness. In one exchange between Mark and Barbara, we see Mark guiltily recognize that Barbara is not some symbol of middle-class complacency, but an anguished woman. Nothing follows between them, Leigh avoiding the false Hollywood moment, staying exactly with the way these two people would behave in this situation.
Leigh also never tries to convey his point of view by using the rather melodramatic crosscutting that a film like The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner does in its climactic race. His interest is not on what will happen next – the film contain no thrills, suspense, surprises, or violence. Nobody takes or sells drugs, and no one gets injured or killed in Meantime. Everybody in the film ends up where they began – in a seedy void.
In Meantime Leigh includes one of his classic sequences where a character who has no relation to the film’s central narrative appears, limning in a few minutes a memorable portrait (e.g., Wayne in High Hopes, Stuart in Secrets & Lies). In this film it’s the manager of the council estate, played by Peter Wight (the philosophic night watchman in Naked), who calls on the Pollocks about a broken window. Sitting on his haunches, this vague, socially concerned man nebulously digresses about economics, self-help, and power to an excited Barbara, who has a chance to show off her education, and to a nonplussed Frank, Mavis, and Colin, who just want their window attended to. In his earnest, self-involved way, he wants to be of help, but you know watching him talk that he’s probably incapable of managing his bank account, let alone a problem-plagued council estate.
Meantime is one among a number of films – like Alan Clarke’s Made in Britain (1983) also starring Tim Roth, Frears and Kureishi’s Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987), Leigh’s own more volatile and expressive Naked (1993), and Antonia Bird’s Safe (1993) – that portray a variety of marginal, sometimes violent lives. It’s the Britain of the homeless, the drug addicted, and the unemployed that never sees the light of day in the tourist brochures or in the ‘Heritage films,’ but whose reality in evoked more and more often in contemporary British cinema.
Meantime is a film that carries less of a satiric and humorous edge than many of Leigh’s other works like Life is Sweet. (1990). If there is less revelatory laughter here (Leigh never merely pacifies his audience with humor), there is still a striking mixture of critical detachment and unpatronizing empathy for his characters – a Leigh trademark. There are no admirable characters in the film, but there are real people struggling within the confines of their own profound personal and social limitations to cope with their lives.
Mike Leigh’s best films are often uncomfortable and unpredictable, and aim to make an audience uneasy. They subvert the formulaic and force the viewer to see just how multifaceted and complex the most everyday of lives are. In small masterworks, like Meantime, he has shaped a slice of working-class life without indulging in false, sensational, or expected notes. He has created a joyless world, which avoids descending either into nihilism or bathos, and has seamlessly converted familiar, banal behavior into understated eloquence.
The battle of the monuments rages in Moscow. A year-old statue of the last Tsar, Nicholas II, was blown up last spring. In July, explosives at the base of the massive new memorial to Tsar Peter the Great were deactivated before they could send the monument into the Moscow River. (Not a bad idea, according to many Muscovites, for esthetic if not political reasons.) A Romanov Dynasty monument in a Moscow cemetery was also attacked in July. Neocommunist grouplets have taken responsibility for these actions, in two of the cases in reaction to all the talk, including hints from the Yeltsin government, about taking Lenin’s corpse out of the Mausoleum and giving it a normal “Christian burial.” Mainline Communists have called such a thought “blasphemous.” The campaign over Lenin’s body promises to be the mother of all battles of the monuments.
A perfect introduction to these passionate issues, with intelligent commentary about how Russians remember and unremember their past, is Disgraced Monuments, a documentary film produced in 1991-1993, when widespread anticommunist iconoclasm destroyed or removed, among others, fifty of the sixty Lenin memorials in Moscow. As the film shows, there were ample precedents in the other direction. Under the Soviets, when public art – when all art – had a political purpose, monuments of the Old Regime were pulled down or altered in favor of memorializing Red heroes. An obelisk at the Kremlin wall, for example, once listed the names of the Romanov Tsars; in 1918 they were replaced with names of revolutionary thinkers, from Campanella to Plekhanov. The biggest, most notorious case of official vandalism came when Stalin decided to blow up Moscow’s imposing Christ the Savior church in 1931 and replace it with a skyscraper Palace of Soviets topped with a gigantic statue of Lenin. The church was blown up – the film includes old footage of the event – although construction problems prevented the skyscraper from going up.
But history’s cunning cycles are now at work again. To the delight of the Orthodox Church and its believers, and thanks to the efforts of Moscow’s energetic mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, Christ the Savior has now been reconstructed and finished in time to celebrate the capital’s 850th anniversary. (With uncanny cinematic insight, Eisenstein captured the spirit of such ups and downs in his October [Ten Days That Shook The World] when he has a revolutionary crowd tearing apart the statue of Tsar Alexander III; then, in a later sequence, he ran the film backwards to reconstruct the statue and mark a reversal in the revolution.)
In Disgraced Monuments, there are effective montages of old clips showing the unveiling of countless memorials to Lenin, and of statues of Stalin, who, as someone says, had a “Medusa complex” – he liked turning figures into stone. These sequences are complemented with contemporary scenes of statue-bashing, or of workshops where rows and rows of busts and statuettes gather dust, or of fallen idols lying in the grass of a “Temporary Museum of Totalitarian Art” in a Moscow park.
Intercut among such images are interviews with curators, critics, and sculptors who decry these post-Soviet festivals of destruction or consignments to the rubbish heap. They are disturbed, not necessarily out of political nostalgia for the old regime and its heroes. Sculptors who specialized in Lenin no longer have government commissions, and now have to bid for work in a competitive free market. Naturally, they are upset. And no sculptors, their politics aside, can be happy to see their work wrecked.
But there is a deeper criticism, voiced by several figures in the film. How, they ask, is this populist rage against old memorials different from what the Soviets used to do? A healthy national consciousness calls for an honest confrontation with its past, not its obliteration. There is a wonderful episode in the film, drawing on footage shot at the time, of pulling down the monument of Dzerzhinsky, first head of the Cheka, antecedent of the KGB, opposite the fearsome Lubyanka. Crowds gathered round the monument in August 1991, desecrating it in an atmosphere of carnival. The freewheeling spirit of 1968 had finally come to the Soviet Union at its deathbed. The critic Viktor Misiano, who was there, rues what followed: the anticommunist Moscow municipal authorities had the monument dismantled. “So removing Dzerzhinsky,” he comments, “was a key moment which marked the end of the ‘performance’ and the start of the new ideology when the mechanism of history began to work again.” (On the pedestal where Dzerzhinsky stood now lies a stone from the Gulag “as a memorial to the millions of victims of the totalitarian regime.”)
This anti-ideological, postmodern political critique by Misiano and others has its merits. The crowd, says Misiano, “would have been content to paint [Dzerzhinsky] blue with polka dots…or just putting a Fool’s cap on his head or giving him a false nose.” Yet from the angle of an ordinary Muscovite – one, say, who had the Gulag or worse in his family biography – wouldn’t that have been trivializing the monstrosities of the Soviet regime and one of its notorious representatives? There is no entirely satisfactory answer – Leave the monuments where they are? Disgrace them with graffiti? Tear them down? Cart them off to a museum? I’m inclined to at least summarize the issue as Yeltsin recently did in calling for a referendum on what to do with Lenin’s body. “On the one hand,” he said of Lenin, “we know that he brought Russia many woes, but on the other hand, this is our history and we can’t hide from it.”
Facing up to history is a refreshing sentiment, especially coming from official Moscow. There is a lot to look back at and ponder; the historian’s ‘primary sources,’ the literal and figurative monuments, still exist in abundance. Cinema is a special kind of monument of the Communist past, a treasure of intact material for understanding popular culture in the Soviet bloc and the state-directed attempts (failures?) to manipulate it. We don’t often think of musicals in this regard, but, as the cleverly titled and archly narrated documentary, East Side Story, shows, they played an important part in the film histories of the U.S.S.R. and its fraternal regimes in Eastern Europe. Some forty musicals were produced in Eastern Europe over four decades, and were rarely seen in the West, if at all. Judging from the many clips assembled here, they ranged from the campy agitprop (“We sing the song of the coal press”) to the slightly more sophisticated fare of beach and rock musicals with Doris Day lookalikes and glamorous dance ensembles.
Soviet musicals are really another story; they were not, as the film implies, unknown in the West, especially in the 1930s, when audiences everywhere were treated to such endearing pictures of Soviet life as in Volga, Volga (1938; Stalin’s favorite film), even as the Great Terror tormented the nation. As the fine Russian critic, Maya Turovskaya, points out in one of her many appearances in the documentary, people needed untruths to survive; escapist entertainment was a balm for the wounds of Stalinism.
The excerpts from Eastern European musicals shown here, mainly from East Germany, are often charming enough, though I doubt anyone could sit through the entire films now, save in the interests of research or, for those who saw them originally, for nostalgic reasons. (The East German Hot Summer of 1968 featuring Frank Schobel, “the Elvis of the East,” was “like a cult film for us kids,” comments someone today.) The travails of filmmakers and official ideologists to bring out appealing musicals that upheld socialist values are well represented in surveying the work of East Germany’s DEFA studios.
Dana Ranga, the director and narrator of East Side Story, tells us that East Germany was “least likely” to host musical film fare, not because the public didn’t care for it – far from it; before the Wall went up in 1962, East Germans flocked to Western musicals screened in West Berlin – but because of the hard-line outlook of the leadership. Musicals were a prime example of an unwanted invasion of American pop influences, and “the most flagrant offspring of the capitalist pleasure industry.” (East Side Story could have done without several staged scenes of grim-faced female commissars mouthing official directives; we get the point without them.)
East German filmmakers, like their earlier Soviet counterparts Grigory Alexandrov and Ivan Pyriev, were asked to entertain, but were boxed in by the imperatives of “education” – read, propaganda. They came up with often resourceful ways out of the dilemma, with results well received by the public. In My Wife Wants to Sing (1958), the musical numbers embroidered the acceptable theme of women’s liberation under socialism. No matter that the film was initially attacked for its “Amerikanismus”: it went on to become one of the biggest hits of the Eastern Bloc, including in the U.S.S.R. Alexandrov had done the same kind of thing in The Shining Path (1940), when he cast his wife, the ever idolized singer Lyubov Orlova, as a heroic Stakhanovite textile worker. DEFA’s Midnight Review (1962) neatly engaged the entertainment-education problem by making that issue the subject of the film. Directors, writers, and musicians are shown sweating the problem tunefully:
It’s enough to make you tear your hair out It’s easier to wait 10 years for a car It’s simpler to go ice-skating in the desert Than to make a socialist musical!
“Too hot, too hot to handle,” they chant, but all is well at the finale. Not very different, change a venue and a ‘problem’ or two, from what a triumphant Donald O’Connor or Mickey Rooney and Peggy Ryan used to accomplish in the old days of the classic Hollywood musicals. And the East Germans did it with painfully little of the Hollywood technology. A few excerpts from musicals from Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, and Czechoslovakia round out the documentary, with the Czech Woman on the Rails (1965) offering the raciest scene of the lot.
Horn and Ranga deserve credit not only for retrieving these musicals, but also for crafting East Side Story from them into an entertaining film in itself. I look forward to their sequel – a documentary on socialist science fiction.
Ang Lee, director of The Ice Storm – whom one would not necessarily regard as a stylist – has conceded that his previous films (Pushing Hands , The Wedding Banquet , Eat Drink Man Woman , and Sense and Sensibility ) lacked a style, in order to make the point that The Ice Storm has one. At his New York Film Festival press conference, Lee noted that the film draws on a photorealist esthetic, adopting an observational approach to the setting. He acknowledged his film’s affinity to Susan and Alan Raymond’s 1973 documentary An American Family, which chronicles the dysfunction and disintegration of a family called the Louds. The Ice Storm is set in the same year An American Family aired on public television.
It’s an intriguing idea to imagine a fiction film taking the form of fly-on-the-wall direct cinema. It makes you wonder what a fly sees. More like morsels of food on the kitchen countertop than moments of human emotion and social interaction. Whatever the Raymonds may have said about their method, when they picked the Louds they had subjects who were primed to act out melodramatic transformations. The flies-on-the-wall had to scamper to keep from getting swatted.
The paradox of The Ice Storm is that the filmmakers imagined that by taking a fly-on-the-wall approach they too were required to keep their distance. It’s odd to think of them adopting a stance of ‘objectivity’ toward characters who are completely figments of their imagination. Maybe this tactic would have worked if they had created fictional families as flamboyant and dysfunctional as the Louds appeared, but the film’s folks might as well have been called the Quiets. The Louds, to be sure, were Californians, while the The Ice Storm’s families live in prim and proper Connecticut.
Not distance but coldness is the operative word for the filmmakers’ viewpoint toward their characters. Director Lee and producer-screenwriter James Schamus, adapting Rick Moody’s novel, have conjured a hell on earth from the low end of the thermometer. The torments suffered by the film’s Connecticut exurbanites come from lives frozen over long before nature’s big freeze occurs on Thanksgiving weekend 1973. People are as brittle as the powerlines and tree branches that snap and break when the temperature drops.
The Ice Storm opens (as we will retrospectively realize) in the midst of the storm that forms the film’s temporal climax. In a framing scene, teenager Paul Hood (Tobey Maguire) is riding a late commuter train from Manhattan to New Canaan. He’s reading a Fantastic Four comic book, and when the power fails and the dark train grinds to a halt, he muses, through voice-over, on how the cartoon quartet resembles a family. “A family,” he says, “is like your own personal antimatter.”
You don’t need a physicist to tell which way the wind is blowing. Negation and annihilation are this simile’s themes for family life, and the film’s two families, the Hoods and the Carvers, just happen to qualify numerically and otherwise as fantastic foursomes.
The Hoods, in addition to Paul, are father Ben (Kevin Kline), mother Elena (Joan Allen), and daughter Wendy (Christina Ricci). The Carvers are mother Janey (Sigourney Weaver), sons Mikey (Elijah Wood) and Sandy (Adam Hann-Byrd), and father Jim (Jamey Sheridan). I reverse patriarchal order in the Carvers’ case because Jim’s business trips are apparently seamless with his presence. “I’m back,” he tells his sons on returning. “You were gone?,” one replies.
Ben Hood has been having an affair with Janey Carver. Talk about cold! From what we see of it, this ranks with the iciest infidelities in movie history. On the fateful dark and stormy night, Elena Hood has what might be called a sexual encounter with Jim Carver in a parked car (they’re left-overs from a spouse-swapping “key party”) and Wendy Hood spends a naked night in bed with Sandy Carver.
But don’t get the idea that The Ice Storm is about the ‘sexual revolution.’ Sex in this film is more like a grotesque form of humanity’s failure to communicate. Perhaps the most harrowing instance comes when Wendy and the older Carver boy, Mikey, start fooling around in the Carver’s finished basement rec-room. Wendy finds a discarded rubber Halloween mask of Richard Nixon and puts it on, paradoxically licensing her sexual boldness by masquerading as one of the most wooden and unerotic of all presidential persons (also, of course, by transgendering her identity).
Nixon is, inevitably, the film’s ruling metaphor for interpreting its historical setting. The Watergate scandal, with it denouement in an unprecedented presidential resignation less than a year in the future, pulls together the nation’s malfunctioning and disintegrating public and private spheres – political criminality, impending defeat in Vietnam, the war between the generations, the implosion of traditional marriages and families (to mention only those disorders that are substantially noted).
Nixon – who is seen on television making one of his fatuous, guilt-ridden, ineffective self-defenses – also functions in another way as the film’s primary symbol. He’s the failed Fifties father figure. He’s the Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, the Organization Man, all those Fifties conformist strivers rolled into one, who persevered and won it all, and now can’t hold on to it. Kevin Kline’s Ben Hood is the film’s junior-grade Nixon. He’s climbed the postwar materialist’s ladder to a Wall Street job and a cube-shaped house in the Connecticut woods. He’s more affable and less earnest than the president, but no less fatuous, guilt-ridden, and ineffective. Now his life, too, is unraveling. (Ben also has, in a way, Nixon’s wife – Joan Allen, who portrayed Mrs. Nixon in Oliver Stone’s film, plays Mrs. Hood here.)
Schamus’s screenplay, a prizewinner at Cannes, leaves out much of the anxiety and sense of failure that Ben suffers in Moody’s novel. The book makes more prominent Ben’s professional panic, his awareness that he is out of his depth at work; if in the past he might have been able to make a career out of geniality and a good golf game, that time is over. The movie doesn’t give us any inkling of the economic crisis that accompanied Watergate and the pullout from Vietnam back in 1973 – soaring oil prices, Wall Street down the tube, people shooting each other on long lines at the fuel pump. The Hood and Carver families each seem to be getting by quite nicely on one income, but you wonder for how long (to be sure, you also wonder how long they’re going to remain families).
Even though a failing patriarchy is The Ice Storm’s overriding issue, the fathers are not exactly engines of the film’s dramatic drive. Ben is an energetic presence, but fundamentally he’s clueless. Jim Carver, rarely heard from, seems to know what’s going on and also that he can’t do anything about it. Lee and Schamus are more interested in what happens to wives and children in the void left behind when the traditional father no longer rules.
Homemaker is not exactly the descriptive term for Elena Hood or Janey Carver. Joan Allen as Elena gives another Pat Nixonian performance – preserving her dignity amid constant humiliation, while occasionally breaking out with startling, pathetic bursts of feeling or will, as when she bicycles into the village and shoplifts a trifle from the pharmacy (unknowingly echoing her daughter’s earlier actions). Sigourney Weaver creates an enigmatic Janey, sharp-witted, decisive, yet so deeply cynical and disappointed by her life that it’s as if she’s sleepwalking through it.
The childrens’ basic problem is finding the route to maturity while knowing that their parents got sidetracked along the way. Wendy, the one member of the two families who takes an interest in Nixon’s downfall, uses her connection to the public world as a bridge toward a private identity. Paul, away at boarding school, develops an acute awareness-he’s the film’s occasional voice-over narrator – as an outsider even to his own self. Sandy, with his homemade buzzbombs and panicky toy soldier, borrows strength from military struggle that doesn’t have to be victorious. Mikey, curious about nature, suffers an annihilation that is not metaphorical.
It sounds compelling in the telling. Yet the film’s documentary impulse quashes its human drama. When a ripple of recognition passes through the audience – partly amused, partly appalled – at the sight of the Carvers’ water bed, it’s the most notable instance of objects in the film taking on more emotional valence than people. Production designer Mark Friedberg, costume designer Carol Oditz, and cinematographer Frederick Elmes have re-created a 1973 world that is cluttered with period things and styles, yet also feels harrowingly empty.
Perhaps that’s one of the filmmaker’s points, that possessions in this social milieu possessed people: things filled the cupboard while souls starved. The effect is like an old photograph, in which we see evidence of past lives even though the people are no longer living. But film can shape a fiction that makes the past appear to live again, not, as in The Ice Storm, hold it at arm’s length and say, this frozen image is as close as we can get.
Produced by Mark Archer and Stephen Pevner; written and directed by Neil LaBute; cinematography by Tony Hettinger; edited by Joel Plotch; music by Ken Williams and Karel Roessingn; starring Aaron Eckhart, Stacy Edwards, Matt Malloy and Michael Martin. Color, 93 mins. A Sony Pictures Classics release.
If Neil LaBute were playing poker, someone would want to shoot him. His debut film, in the Company of Men, announces itself as a cutthroat round of stud poker involving two seasoned players and a mark. As the cards are laid it becomes apparent that the dealer is holding a pat hand. Even worse, just before the final bets, the rules change to include wild cards. What begins as a high-stakes game of sexual chance is on closer inspection little more than a (phallic) shell game whose slick gestures hide an elusive thematic pea.
Opening at the tail end of summer’s commercial sludgefest, Company was almost universally hailed as a tough, darkly-etched social satire on empty suits behaving badly for fun and profit. According to the director, the story is a simple case of “boys meet girl, boys crush girl, boys giggle.” Allowing for a certain amount of poetic license – only one boy giggles; the girl does not seem crushed – LaBute’s encapsulation sounds like a screwball comedy gone sour, a post-feminist battle of the sexes in which the side with all the weapons gets skewered.
What transpires is at once more ambitious and less clearly motivated. Two former college buddies perched on the same generic corporate ladder are sent for six weeks to a branch office in a nameless heartland city in order to oversee some vague data installation and training program. Chad (Aaron Eckhart) and Howard (Matt Malloy) are a typical odd couple: the former is brash, deadly handsome, and verbally adept; the latter is a diminutive nerd replete with glasses, receding hairline, and a bad case of the mumbles. What binds them psychologically are deep-seated grievances against women, what they view as the power to manipulate and humiliate them in romantic relationships. They agree that things are getting out of balance and that there’s going to be hell to pay down the line.
Although they decry the absurdity of not being able to tell lewd jokes at work, the gender competition they imagine is primarily sexual, not economic; strangely, the only women evident in the corporate structure are typists. During a long night of drinking and venting en route to their new assignment, Chad coerces Howard into a scheme in which they will target and mutually seduce a woman from the local office, someone so physically disadvantaged and undesirable that she doubts the possibility of romance. Then they will dump her and laugh about it, Chad explains, “until we are very old men.”
They settle on Christine (Stacy Edwards), a clerical temp who is deal lives with her mother, and speaks with a halting nasal drone. The object in this game of payback is to maintain perfect control, a constant theme as well as emblem of the film’s visual design. As Fate or narrative convention would have it, Howard, and possibly Chad, become emotionally involved, forcing them into same-sex competition and eventual betrayal. By the end, Howard is completely undone, a physical wreck who has been demoted to customer relations and reduced to pitiful groveling in front of an unresponsive Christine.
In what the film passes off as biting irony, it is learned that Chad’s account of his mistreatment by a lover is all a hoax. The suggestion is that, despite an overarching viciousness and anger directed at the social order in general, Chad’s ulterior motive in concocting the seduction scheme has been status envy, the subversion of Howard’s superior position in the corporate hierarchy. In other words, the manipulation of sexual power has served as a cloak for intrafraternal warfare: boys hit on girl, boys fuck each other up, boys exchange job descriptions.
Unfortunately for the narrative logic, the rivalry over who will bed Christine is itself a hoax. Howard is presented as needy, cuddly, and awkwardly sincere, a mixture of Woody and Dilbert. Chad is a tad chilly yet, given that both he and Christine look as though they have stepped off the pages of Vogue, there is scarcely a moment’s doubt as to which guy will get the nod; indeed, the only mystery is why Christine is not the object of more romantic attention. For a while at least, Company sticks to its guns, maintaining a strict perspectival focus on the men (although always slightly favoring Chad as mediator of knowledge). In the body of the film, scenes shift between the two men alone and their various romantic encounters with Christine. She is given no independent life and her feelings about her sudden popularity remain a cipher. There is an admirable rigor involved in the decision to cordon off the victim’s subjectivity.
It then becomes all the more shocking, and inexcusable, when the rules of engagement are broken. In the second of two climactic scenes, Chad admits to Christine that Howard’s revelation of the pact between the suitors is true. After Chad departs, the camera lingers on a two-minute overhead closeup of Christine’s silent agony, the most blatantly mawkish and invasive shot in the entire movie (Oh, did I mention that one-eyed jacks are wild?). The same formal misprision is repeated, and amplified, in the final scene as, weeks later, Howard comes barging into a cavernous bank where Christine is now temping. As he entreats her to give him another chance, his voice is abruptly deleted from the soundtrack, making us privy not only to Christine’s optical but also her auditory perspective.
These calculated lapses in the film’s stylistic program would perhaps feel less damaging were it not for the insistent emphasis on hard-edged, almost clinical disengagement from contact with the characters’ inner lives, a method LaBute refers to as minimalism. The majority of scenes unfold in long-take, fixed-camera, frontal compositions-many from unnaturally high or low angles – which display the two predators like insects in a museum exhibit. The physical environment they inhabit parallels the impersonal, functionless work they presumably perform: not quite colorless but antiseptic surfaces, a series of compartmentalized spaces in which the exercise of gratuitous insult is muffled by an aura of synthetic uniformity (a design stunningly realized by cinematographer Tony Hettinger). The effect is reminiscent of Kubrick’s visions of male technocracy, a comparison heightened by two scenes of male intimacy staged in the executive bathroom – think of The Shining or Full Metal Jacket.
Further, a dynamic tension between aggression and compartmentalization is established by a clipped cadence of six discrete sequences or chapters corresponding to the progression of weeks, bracketed by a prologue and epilogue. Paradoxically, the degree of distance and control inscribed in the image eventually registers as a mirror for the consciousness of control-freak Chad. In this sense, not only is Company’s narrative economy weighted towards Chad’s willful deceptions, its visual patterning corresponds to Chad’s buffed, meticulous demeanor.
Since Howard never has a fighting chance, and Chad is virtually Jack the Ripper in Brooks Brothers garb, it is hard to understand what critics found so controversial, incendiary, or instructive about Company’s discourse on misogyny. Rather than being implicated in the attitudes or behaviors of the schematic seducers, the male viewer can shrug off any stigma of identification by simply dismissing the characters as either patently pathetic or borderline psychopathic. If there is a need to articulate the relationship between masculine self-definition and the wielding of sexual power within the workplace, that goal is surely not achieved by creating characters so exaggerated that any possible defense of their actions becomes moot.
Company does contain one truly incendiary scene, but like much else in the film it turns out to be a red herring. In a private conference, Chad interrogates an African-American intern about a minor infraction, dangling the possibility of corporate advancement if he has the balls. When the intern responds affirmatively, Chad demands to see if they are literally big enough, and after some hesitation – and assurance from Chad that he is no homo – the poor guy obliges. Are we to conclude that Chad’s sexism is integrally linked with racism? That his competition with Howard is actually grounded in inchoate homoerotic attraction? The film pursues neither question; instead, they are merely tantalizing diversions, like the grand flourish of a card sharp as he slides one off the bottom of the deck.
A frequent connection has been made between LaBute’s film and the work of David Mamet, an insight that seems dead-on, if not in the way it was intended. At both his best and his worst, Mamet is a practitioner of what might be called the slippery allegory, in which individual characters are invested with abstract social or psychological or moral attributes. In traditional – as opposed to postmodern – literary allegories such as Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, a character who stands for, say, Christian virtue will encounter a series of figures and situations that will test and ultimately define the ideal nature of the abstract concept. In Mamet’s plays and films, there is often the veneer of a hidden parable, some ethical lesson to be derived which remains just hazy enough to allow for conflicting interpretations. The dehumanizing, degrading but also possibly redemptive rituals of persuasion enacted in Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) is a useful example. When the social issue at stake is defined too narrowly or clumsily, and the deck of allegorical traits is stacked from the beginning, as in the egregious fakery of Oleanna’s (1994) gender struggle, the house of cardboard figures collapses under its own weight.
Something similar occurs in Company. It is never clear whether the trope of corporate competition as directed by Chad is a displacement for or a generative model of male heterosexual rage. Are these two behavioral trajectories being equated, paralleled, or situated in a causal chain (i.e., the frustrations of mindless, alienated labor produce sexual predation; or alternatively, the inability to find romantic completion leads to cutthroat business tactics)? The deaf typist whose limited powers of speech prohibit dissimulation, the nameless computer application of a nameless corporation located in a nameless city, all conspire to place the drama of In the Company of Men in a suprarealistic realm. Chad and Howard are not to be taken literally, as real people, but as exemplars of…what? The film can never quite decide; there is something up its sleeve and the suspicion is that it is nothing more, or less, than the long arm of patriarchy.
Maybe it’s just part of being a successful artist: you’re proud of the work that made your reputation, but, being an artist, you want to put it behind you and move on to something new. Trouble is, your fans don’t want to let you. If you’re Sting, they sit in the back of the concert hall year after year and holier, “Roxanne!” If you’re Woody Allen, they buy tickets for each new film hoping it will be a remake of Annie Hall.
As frustrating as that kind of response must be for an artist, it could be forgiven in the case of the filmmaker Charles Burnett, whose early movies Killer of Sheep (1973) and My Brother’s Wedding (1983), share a subtlety largely missing in much of his more recent work. Sheep and Wedding managed the not inconsiderable feat of showing black families and communities with their uniqueness intact, and yet not allowing that uniqueness to devolve into the kind of stereotype that overshadows character. The people in those films and in Burnett’s masterpiece, To Sleep with Anger (1990), come across as black and human, not necessarily in that order. (This is all the more amazing in the case of the first two films – and is a testament to Burnett’s skill as a director – since the budgets for Sheep and Wedding did not even allow for professional actors.)
In Killer of Sheep, set in an impoverished neighborhood in South-Central Los Angeles, the main character is Stan, played by Henry Gayle Saunders. In the daytime Stan works in a slaughterhouse, surrounded by sheep, poor creatures neither responsible. for nor aware of the hideousness of their surroundings; nights and weekends, he hangs out with their human counterparts, friends and acquaintances too busy struggling to reflect on why they must struggle so. But Stan reflects; at least he has plenty of time to, since his frustration with the monotony and dreariness of his life has – in addition to making him emotionally distant from his wife and two children – turned him into an insomniac. (The film’s joke is that in the daytime Stan kills sheep, and at night he counts them.)
Killer of Sheep is virtually plotless, which bothered some reviewers upon its release but which actually goes along with the sleeping/waking theme. Stan’s true problem is not that he can’t get to sleep but that he seems to be in one long, tiresome dream from which he can’t rouse himself; episodes in the film, as in a dream, don’t conclude so much as blend into different episodes. In some Stan is a participant, in some an observer, in some not present at all. What ties them all together is the meanness of the characters’ lives, whether they are in the middle of a domestic dispute, on their way to put money on a horse, or in the process of cooking up a shady deal.
It is a blessing, given the period in which this film was made, that the idea for it did not enter the mind of a blaxploitation-film director (one of the creators of Hell Up in Harlem, Across 110th Street, and all the rest). If it had, Stan would surely get together with a couple of equally disgruntled buddies, buy some Saturday Night Specials, and take what was rightfully his from The Man. As it is, Stan has his temptations. A couple of thugs want him to go in on a job; a female liquor-store owner, not particularly attractive but certainly available, comes on to him. What makes Stan interesting and admirable is that, in an environment where decency is barely noticed, let alone rewarded, he passes up these little diversions.
And what saves Killer of Sheep from being a condescending, bleeding-heart little message of a movie (“Look at how these poor black people have to live! Isn’t it AWFUL?”) is Stan’s persistence, for all his moodiness, in finding small, simple things to appreciate. Sometimes even this backfires. Having coffee with a friend, he holds his mug to his cheek and says, “This remind you of anything?” After putting the mug to his own face, the friend says, “Nothing.” Stan then explains, in a wistful tone, that the heat on his cheek makes him think of the hot forehead of a woman with whom he is making love. “I don’t go for women with malaria,” the friend says, then proceeds to laugh derisively.
Sometimes, though, the little pleasures come through. When Stan’s young daughter looks out the door of their house at a sudden downpour and asks, “What makes it rain, Daddy?,” Stan answers, “The Devil’s beating his wife.” They both smile at this black southernism, a saying used when the sun shines during a rainstorm – a lovely event in the midst of dreariness, one that should be savored while it lasts. It is a moment that perfectly captures the spirit of Killer of Sheep, a small, quiet gem of a movie.
My Brother’s Wedding focuses on Pierce (Everett Silas), a thirty-something man who lives with his parents and works in their dry-cleaning store while he tries to ‘find’ himself. His parents (like Burnett’s) have southern origins and values, which include a strong work ethic. Pierce is both scornful and a little jealous of his brother and sister-in-law for their career success. My Brother’s Wedding deftly explores the irony of the generation gap as it applies to black people: while southernness (whether in cuisine, speech, or attitude) has traditionally been associated with blackness, the work ethic that goes with it is seen as Uncle Tom-ism by many younger blacks, who scoff at their peers’ attempts to make it in the ‘white’ world – and who assume that any black who does succeed has sold out. If, as the saying goes, there is a crime behind every great fortune, then in the view of black people like Pierce, there is a lack of integrity behind every successful African-American. Like Killer of Sheep, Wedding is subtly evocative of a particular aspect of black life, and it has something Sheep doesn’t have – an immediate conflict. When Pierce’s best friend is released from prison, Pierce is forced to choose, finally, between his upright family and his friend’s criminal ways.
While Wedding has a more identifiable conflict and a firmer grounding in black southern culture than Sheep, with To Sleep with Anger Burnett again outdid himself on both fronts, while making progress on a third – the enlistment of professional actors. To Sleep with Anger is the story of Suzie (Mary Alice) and Gideon (Paul Butler), a middle-class couple getting on in years. They have raised their grown sons (Carl Lumbly and Richard Brooks) in California, but they themselves are unaltered products of the South where they grew up. So deeply ingrained are their old traditions that Gideon confides to Suzie early in the film that he has misplaced his Toby, or personal good-luck piece. Coincidentally – or maybe not – the disappearance of the Toby is followed shortly by the appearance of Harry (Danny Glover), an acquaintance from Suzie and Gideon’s youth, who has come for a visit of indefinite length. Here begin the troubles.
To Sleep with Anger is a marvel of characterization and subtlety. Early on, Gideon tells a story to his young grandson, and at its conclusion the boy asks for another. “You tell me a story,” Gideon responds. The boy starts out, “Once upon a time…” and is cut short by the sound of the doorbell and Harry’s arrival. Touches like this can slip easily past the viewer, who understands them only in retrospect; the same relationship exists between Harry’s actions and Suzie, Gideon, and their family. Danny Glover’s Harry is a human version of Southern Comfort – he’s smooth and sweet, he puts you in a good mood, and Lord help you once the mood has passed. His manipulations come close to tearing the family apart.
So smooth is Harry – and so understated is this film – that the viewer who misses some key bits of dialog may miss altogether Harry’s purpose. But at one point, when Harry waxes personal to Suzie and then cannot resist pulling out a snapshot of his dead sons, he tips his hand: he has come to take away one of Suzie’s sons to replace his own. As it happens, one of them is ripe for the taking. The younger son, played by Richard Brooks, is a study in discontent. On the one hand, he bristles at the responsibilities that come with marriage and fatherhood; on the other, he resents the family in which he, as a grown man still called Babe Brother and even “boy,” is not always treated as an adult. Babe Brother’s every gesture is tinged with unhappiness, none more so than his smile, which serves only to put the grim cast of the rest of his features in relief. Babe Brother’s unhappiness and Harry’s exploitation of it are the building blocks for a fascinating, tension-filled story.
Adding nuance is Burnett’s visual style. This does not seem at first to be the case: with the exception of one sequence, for which the filmmaker is indebted to The Godfather (shots of a baptism are intercut with shots of Harry entering devious mode), To Sleep with Anger is typical Burnett, in that the shots are very straightforward. But they are, in fact, emphatically so, as if to underscore the difference between what you see and what you get: while the camera looks straight at Harry, Harry is anything but straight, answering with a riddle every question put to him. Here, visually speaking, Burnett goes the simplicity of, say, Killer of Sheep one better. The camera looks four-square at everything and everyone, as if setting up still photographs. For that matter, the camera, when not focusing on actual family photos, puts every character in a frame of a different sort – be it a doorway, a car window, the window of a house, the branches of a tree, or a shock of white hair. Everyone is made to look ready to be photographed, prepared for public viewing. Tension is thus created between appearance and reality. visually as well as thematically, To Sleep with Anger is a powerful piece of filmmaking.
Unfortunately, it was also a box-office disappointment. If Burnett felt frustrated by that, then perhaps – understandably – he set out to snare with his next film a wider audience than his critically acclaimed but ill-attended earlier movies had drawn. Or maybe he had another aim. “There’s something unique about different peoples and what they’ve experienced,” Burnett told The Christian Science Monitor in 1990. “The thing is to not reduce it, not trivialize it, but show what it is, and show its universality.” To be sure, Burnett’s first three films had achieved this goal as far as black people were concerned. He had shown, for those who didn’t already know it, that black people do indeed have something unique – a culture, in other words. He had shown many blacks’ rootedness in southern ways, and laced his films with jazz and blues tunes. Particularly in the case of Killer of Sheep, he had shed light on the tendency of blacks, as an oppressed people, to snatch joy from desperate situations – to improvise, a skill at the heart of jazz and blues, the music created by blacks. But maybe, after To Sleep with Anger, Burnett felt that this approach had run its course – that he had taken subtlety and understatement as far as he could, that it was time to make statements about black people, and race in general, in bolder terms.
Either reason, or both together, could logically have been behind Burnett’s 1995 film, The Glass Shield. This is a story about the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s office. But it is also a Charles Burnett film, and so the standard equipment of Hollywood cop movies – gore, steamy sex, high-speed chases, and more gore – are refreshingly absent. What takes their place is a statement about institutionalized corruption and racism and the need to maintain one’s integrity in the face of them. It is a statement that, while not novel, is well worth making, as it never hurts to be reminded of these things. As for making the statement in the form of a movie, that is not necessarily a bad thing, either. Drama and political message can dance well together, provided drama leads. Here, it struggles in vain to keep up.
Shield’s central character is J.J. Johnson (Michael Boatman), a wet-behind-the-ears graduate of the Sheriffs Academy and the first black deputy to join the Sheriffs office. When he pulls into the parking lot on the morning of his first day, not yet wearing his uniform, another deputy tells him that the space he’s pulled into is for employees only. Flashing his badge and a smile, J.J. says, “I am an employee.” The look on the white deputy’s face is one of alarm. The viewer sees this, but J.J. doesn’t – he has already rounded the corner and is off to begin his career of defending the citizenry. And so it goes: while the bright-eyed J.J. dreams of one day having the precinct named after him, signs of prejudice and worse proliferate around him. Before long J.J. is sucked into it. A racist white deputy stops a driver simply because he is black and behind the wheel of a nice car; J.J., as the deputy’s backup, finds a gun in the driver’s glove compartment; the gun is soon linked, rather conveniently, to a recent killing.
Later, as the driver faces a murder charge, J.J. perjures himself by saying that the driver was stopped for a legitimate reason, because of an illegal turn. He tells this lie for what he believes is the greater good, not knowing – as the viewer cannot help but know – that the black driver has been victimized from the start. And so it is necessary to wait for J.J. to discover, and the plot to confirm, what the tone of the film has suggested to us all along. We do not follow the story; it follows us. Michael Boatman, currently a gay mayoral aide on the sitcom Spin City, is an immensely appealing actor, and it is because of this that J.J. is not merely irritating. (Not to mention unbelievable. A black man in 1990s Los Angeles who joins the police force and is surprised by the racism he encounters?) One reacts to Boatman’s J.J. as to a good friend who is clueless on a particular issue. But Boatman’s performance is not enough to make The Glass Shield compelling.
Burnett managed a bit more dramatic power in Nightjohn, released late in 1996. Set in the antebellum South, this is the story of Sarny (Allison Jones), a twelve-year-old slave on the plantation of Clel Waller (Beau Bridges). Chiefly, it concerns Sarny’s relationship with John (Carl Lumbly, the older son in To Sleep with Anger) – a black man who has escaped slavery but has decided to become a slave again for the sake of teaching to read the other slaves he encounters. As with The Glass Shield, the message here – that literacy equals power for black people – is a worthy one, and the fact that the film was released in the middle of the recent Ebonics debate is, to say the least, interesting. But the message is hardly new, and in delivering it Burnett, maybe for the first time, stumbles into cliche: the conflict between the young, headstrong slave who wants freedom for himself and others, and the older one who warns that all this freedom talk will just get somebody killed.
Still, there is some of the old Burnett magic at work here. Clel Waller discovers that someone has forged passes to help two slaves escape; then a Bible, thought to have been merely misplaced, turns up in the slaves’ quarters. Waller reasons that whichever slave stole the Bible must be able to read and must therefore have forged the passes. The slave must be whipped as an example, and when Waller finds who he thinks is the guilty party, he gives the disciplinary assignment to his son, a young man not as progressive as he believes himself to be. When the son hesitates with the whip, the accused slave (Lorraine Toussaint) analyzes the reason why: he is torn, she says, between not wanting to displease his father and not wanting to end up like him. Hearing this, Clel Waller tells his son, “She’s readin’ you pretty good, boy.” There, from the mouth of this trader and mutilator of human beings, comes the sharp, Burnett-style observation: that, as important as literacy is, intelligence should not be measured solely by the ability to interpret words on paper, that there are many ways of analyzing what is in front of us, many ways of ‘reading.’
It is this kind of quietly powerful insight that is Charles Burnett’s real strength – not the brand of halfway-thought-out hollering best left to others (Oliver Stone and Spike Lee come to mind). Or, if it is the bold message that Burnett is now bent on sending, one hopes that he will continue to bolster it with the small, perfect moments that characterize his best work.
Although the Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF) is a noncompetitive event, it is more than a “Best of” World Cinema. This year, the 21st HKIFF (March 25 – April 9) packed an array of fourteen programs, including “Global Images” (new international cinema), director tributes and “Archival Treasures,” which included Louis Feuillade’s ten-episode serial, Les Vampires – all 457 minutes of it!
Since this is 1997 – with the July 1 ‘handover’ of Hong Kong imminent – it was an opportunity to reassess both the past and likely future of HK cinema itself. This was achieved by a three-day international conference (April 10-12) following the HKIFF’s retrospective programme of forty-five HK films, key works between 1947 and 1994, titled “Fifty Years of Electric Shadows.”
For nearly fifty years, Hong Kong has been one of the most productive film centers on earth – alongside Japan, India, and the U.S. – without subsidy. In 1954, for example, with a population then of around three million, HK produced more than 200 features, some in minority dialects but mostly in either Mandarin or Cantonese, the primary ‘competing’ languages. Annual production peaked at just over 300 in the early Sixties. Once seen, some of the more luminous stars of the period are not easily forgotten – Bai Guang (a classic ‘noir’ bad girl), Tzi Lo-lin, Li Lihua, Lin Dai, and Betty Le Di, among other female superstars. Like Ida Lupino in Hollywood, Bai Guang and Tzi Lo-lin were those rarities in the Fifties – women directors of commercial films.
The HKIFF’s “retrospectives” continue to flesh out the story of Hong Kong’s film heritage. Where else can you see the childstar Bruce Lee suddenly pop up in Fifties’ Cantonese melodramas – a career rarely discussed sufficiently in Lee’s ‘biographies’?
As a reminder that there is more to HK cinema than the fan-pieces available on the Internet, one of the festival’s best films – Asian or otherwise – was Wild Wild Rose (1960), a superb film noir, loosely based on the Carmen theme. Set largely in and around Wanchai night clubs, the film is from an era – up to the mid Sixties – when female stars dominated HK films. Few performances in memory, Garbo and Monroe included, match the onscreen electricity of Grace Chang here in the title role. Wild Wild Rose was directed by Wang Tianlin, the father of Wong Jing, a prolific filmmaker in HK today.
Generational lines were further evident in Li Hanxiang’s The Enchanting Shadow (1960), later ‘remade’ by Tsui Hark as A Chinese Ghost Story, just as John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow is termed a ‘remake’ of Lung Kong’s Story of a Discharged Prisoner (1967). Mr Lung returned from the U.S. (where he occasionally works as an actor) to introduce his Hiroshima 28 (1974), an effective drama that passionately denounces nuclear weapons.
Thanks to the festival and to the recent establishment of the Hong Kong Film Archive, filmmakers are increasingly aware of their own precious heritage. Peter Chan’s Comrades: Almost a Love Story (screened at the festival) cleaned up at the Annual HK Film Awards (April 13) with nine wins, including Best Screenplay (Ivy Ho), Best Director (Chan), Best Film, and Best Actress (Maggie Cheung). It looks back a tad to the weepies and melodramas of the Fifties and Sixties, although Comrades is an Eighties/Nineties romance between two emigrant mainlanders, beautifully written, with perhaps a nod to An Affair to Remember.
Chan’s film complemented a delightful homage to HK actress, Maggie Cheung. French director Olivier Assayas’s entry, Irma Vep (1996), concerns a Hong Kong actress named Maggie Cheung (Maggie Cheung), who comes to Paris to star in a remake of Louis Feuillade’s Les Vampires for a slightly mad and paranoid director (Jean-Pierre Leaud, looking uncannily like Francois Truffaut).
Today, in spite of industry fears about censorship from Beijing, falling local attendance, or the current brain drain to Hollywood, the miracle that is HK cinema will not cease on July 1. Indeed, the reopening of the mainland market (mostly shut since the early Fifties) should revive it, albeit gradually. There remains a cultural as well as administrative border between the new Hong Kong and China, explains television executive, Jermyn Lynn: “One of the biggest differences preventing China and HK from cooperating more together in TV and movies is that in China the order of interest is to educate, to inform and then entertain. In HK it is just the reverse.”
The Hong Kong Film Archive has finally been established to retrieve, preserve, and repair the local film heritage. The Archive continually rediscovers old films and has just purchased some 500 old prints from a theatre in San Francisco where the climate is kinder to film – long decimated by humidity, poor storage, and cultural apathy in HK itself.
The conference looked to the future beyond 1997 with only a touch of anxiety. On censorship, one speaker worried about the inconsistency of mainland policies. “For example,” said one, “If statistics show there are too many divorces, they may suddenly start cutting extramarital scenes!” Direct censorship from Beijing will continue to be applied only to co-productions in which the mainland has a financial stake – such as the long-awaited The Soong Sisters that opened in HK on May 1 after more than a year on the shelf. Filmmakers hoped that Beijing will rethink its current policy of ‘one-only versions,’ whether coproductions are shown in China or in foreign markets. (A full version of the original Soong script has been published and is widely on sale in Hong Kong.)
There were also winning contemporary films from elsewhere in Asia such as the hilarious Signal Left, Turn Right, directed by China’s Huang Jianxin. Literally a road movie (set in a part-time driving course run by the police), it cleverly reflects today’s changing China with five imperfect students seeking driver’s licenses for various reasons. There were the Taiwanese films with their trademark longshots (perhaps an economy measure), the most interesting of which was Tsai Ming-liang’s The River, apparently the third in a series about a family who talk to each other less and less as the series progresses. Initially very funny, the long takes begin to wear you down.
But the feature of this year’s HKIFF remains its panoramic view of HK film culture throughout half a century – an identity it can carry proudly into the future.